Crates of champagne were popped open, wine was mulled and sake was sipped. But now the feast days are over, we must rein in the appetite (and the spending, too). It’s time to focus on simple, wholesome home cooking to see us through the coldest season: hearty stews and nabe hot pots, rib-sticking casseroles and cassoulets — plus daily doses of steaming-hot miso shiru.
Too often this salty-savory soup is overlooked, served almost as an afterthought along with rice and pickles at the end of a traditional meal. But at its finest, prepared fresh with quality ingredients, miso shiru is one of the supreme dishes in Japanese cuisine, with a heady aroma that can elevate the spirits and a rootsiness that simultaneously grounds and warms the body.
Ask any chef and they will say the crucial factor is the basic dashi (soup stock) used in the soup. But that truism neglects the actual taste and quality of the miso itself. There are thousands of varieties of this thick, soy-based seasoning. Most is mass-produced in large factories but, as with sake, there are also local producers that follow the traditional fermentation procedures, as well as farmers who continue to prepare small-scale batches by hand in the age-old way.
When you want to buy good sake, you head to a specialist liquor store and talk to those in the know. In the same way, if it’s premium miso you’re after, then the place to go is a specialist miso store. Tokyo’s best is Sano Miso, out in Kameido on the eastern fringes of the city.
This wonderful shop, in business for almost 80 years now, is undoubtedly the finest purveyor in the city. The simple, wood-accented showroom is filled with squat tubs, rows upon rows of them, each piled up with different kinds of miso and topped with curious conical covers of clear plastic.
Each region of Japan boasts its own style, varying in terms of ingredients (miso can be made with rice, barley or other grains, or from soybeans alone) and fermentation time (often over a year). The spectrum of shades runs from dark chocolate-brown to orange and yellow to creamy albino white, and the flavors range from ambrosial sweet to mildly sour to deep, savory rich — all with the tang of fermentation and their essential saltiness (never less than 10 percent).
Unlike in a supermarket, where everything is packed in plastic, here you can ask the attentive shop staff to raise the lids so you can sniff and even sample before you buy. Then, having made your choice, they will weigh it out and pack it for you. With a minimum order of just 200 grams (from as little as ¥390 per 500 grams), this makes it easy to try two or three different kinds.
Often the tastiest miso shiru is prepared with a mix of two different kinds of miso, of which the classic combination is akadashi. This is a blend of Hatcho miso — a dark, dense, aristocratic, soybean-only variety made in Okazaki (in the shadow of the castle of the first Tokugawa shogun) — with a lighter, rice-based miso, perhaps from Shinshu (Nagano Prefecture).
Do not leave Sano Miso without first checking the shelves in the other half of the store. You will find all the ingredients necessary for preparing the dashi stock for your soup — konbu seaweed and katsuobushi fish flakes ; abundant pickles, including numerous kinds of bright-red, sharply sour umeboshi (pickled ume apricots); traditional amazake, a thick, white, nonalcoholic drink that is remarkably sweet for being made solely from rice without added sugar; all kinds of condiments and seasonings; and excellent smoked fish in the cold cabinet.
1-35-8 Kameido, Koto-ku; open 9 a.m.-7 p.m. (Sun. and holidays 10 a.m.-7 p.m.); all labels in Japanese but some English spoken; (03) 3685-6111; www.sanomiso.co.jp/tizu.htm; Sano also has a small outlet inside the Atre mall at Kameido JR station, offering a more limited selection ( 3638-2430).